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money and ingenuity expended on their arrangement. Yet to
penetrate the mystery of house-furnishing it is only necessary
to analyze one satisfactory room and to notice wherein its charm
lies. To the fastidious eye it will, of course, be found in fitness
of proportion, in the proper use of each moulding and in the
harmony of all the decorative processes ; and even to those
who think themselves indifferent to such detail, much of the
sense of restfulness and comfort produced by certain rooms
depends on the due adjustment of their fundamental parts.
Different rooms minister to different wants and while a room
may be made very livable without satisfying any but the ma-
ternal requirements of its inmates it is evident that the perfect
room should combine these qualities with what corresponds to
them in a higher order of needs. At present, however, the
subject deals only with the material livableness of a room, and
this will generally be found to consist in the position of the
doors and fireplace, the accessibility of the windows, the arrange-
ment of the furniture, the privacy of the room and the absence
of the superfluous.

The position of doors and fireplace, though the subject comes
properly -under the head of house-planning, may be included in
this summary, because in rearranging a room it is often pos-

20 The Decoration of Houses

sible to change its openings, or at any rate, in the case of doors,
to modify their dimensions.

The fireplace must be the focus of every rational scheme of
arrangement. Nothing is so dreary, so hopeless to deal with,
as a room in which the fireplace occupies a narrow space be-
tween two doors, so that it is impossible to sit about the hearth. 1
Next in importance come the windows. In town houses es-
pecially, where there is so little light that every ray is precious
to the reader or worker, window-space is invaluable. Yet in
few rooms are the windows easy of approach, free from useless
draperies and provided with easy-chairs so placed that the light
falls properly on the occupant's work.

It is no exaggeration to say that many houses are deserted by
the men of the family for lack of those simple comforts which
they find at their clubs: windows unobscured by layers of mus-
lin, a fireplace surrounded by easy-chairs and protected from
draughts, well-appointed writing-tables and files of papers and
magazines. Who cannot call to mind the dreary drawing-room,
in small town houses the only possible point of reunion for the
family, but too often, in consequence of its exquisite discomfort,
of no more use as a meeting-place than the vestibule or the cellar?
The windows in this kind of room are invariably supplied with
two sets of muslin curtains, one hanging against the panes, the
other fulfilling the supererogatory duty of hanging against the
former; then come the heavy stuff curtains, so draped as to cut
off the upper light of the windows by day, while it is impossible
to drop them at night: curtains that have thus ceased to serve
the purpose for which they exist. Close to the curtains stands

1 There is no objection to putting a fireplace between two doors, provided both
doors be at least six feet from the chimney.



Rooms in General 21

the inevitable lamp or jardiniere, and the wall-space between the
two windows, where a writing-table might be put, is generally
taken up by a cabinet or console, surmounted by a picture made
invisible by the dark shadow of the hangings. The writing-table
might find place against the side-wall near either window ; but
these spaces are usually sacred to the piano and to that modern
futility, the silver-table. Thus of necessity the writing-table is
either banished or put in some dark corner, where it is little
wonder that the ink dries unused and a vase of flowers grows
in the middle of the blotting-pad.

The hearth should be the place about which people gather; but
the mantelpiece in- the average American house, being ugly, is
usually covered with inflammable draperies; the fire is, in conse-
quence, rarely lit, and no one cares to sit about a Tireless hearth.
Besides, on the opposite side of the room is a gap in the wall
eight or ten feet wide, opening directly upon the hall, and expos-
ing what should be the most private part of the room to the
scrutiny of messengers, servants and visitors. This opening is
sometimes provided with doors; but these, as a rule, are either
slid into the wall or are unhung and replaced by a curtain
through which every word spoken in the room must necessarily
pass. In such a room it matters very little how the rest of the
furniture is arranged, since it is certain that no one will ever sit in
it except the luckless visitor who has no other refuge.

Even the visitor might be thought entitled to the solace of a
few books; but as all the tables in the room are littered with
knick-knacks, it is difficult for the most philanthropic hostess to
provide even this slight alleviation.

When the town-house is built on the basement plan, and
the drawing-room or parlor is up-stairs, the family, to escape

22 The Decoration of Houses

from its discomforts, habitually take refuge in the small room
opening off the hall on the ground floor; so that instead of sitting
in a room twenty or twenty-five feet wide, they are packed into
one less than half that size and exposed to the frequent intrusions
from which, in basement houses, the drawing-room is free. But
too often even the "little room down-stairs" is arranged less like
a sitting-room in a private house than a waiting-room at a fash-
ionable doctor's or dentist's. It has the inevitable yawning gap
in the wall, giving on the hall close to the front door, and is
either the refuge of the ugliest and most uncomfortable furniture
in the house, or, even if furnished with taste, is arranged with so
little regard to comfort that one might as well make it part of the
hall, as is often done in rearranging old houses. This habit of
sacrificing a useful room to the useless widening of the hall is
indeed the natural outcome of furnishing rooms of this kind in so
unpractical a way that their real usefulness has ceased to be
apparent. The science of restoring wasted rooms to their proper
uses is one of the most important and least understood branches
of house-furnishing.

Privacy would seem to be one of the first requisites of civilized
life, yet it is only necessary to observe the planning and arrange-
ment of the average house to see how little this need is recog-
nized. Each room in a house has its individual uses: some are
made to sleep in, others are for dressing, eating, study, or con-
versation; but whatever the uses of a room, they are seriously
interfered with if it be not preserved as a small world by itself.
If the drawing-room be a part of the hall and the library a part
of the drawing-room, all three will be equally unfitted to serve
their special purpose. The indifference to privacy which has
sprung up in modern times, and which in France, for instance,

Rooms in General 23

has given rise to the grotesque conceit of putting sheets of plate-
glass between two rooms, and of replacing doorways by openings
fifteen feet wide, is of complex origin. It is probably due in part
to the fact that many houses are built and decorated by people
unfamiliar with the habits of those for whom they are building.
It may be that architect and decorator live in a simpler manner
than their clients, and are therefore ready to sacrifice a kind of
comfort of which they do not feel the need to the "effects" ob-
tainable by vast openings and extended "vistas." To the un-
trained observer size often appeals more than proportion and
costliness than suitability. In a handsome house such an ob-
server is attracted rather by the ornamental detail than by the
underlying purpose of planning and decoration. He sees the
beauty of the detail, but not its relation to the whole. He there-
fore regards it as elegant but useless ; and his next step is to infer
that there is an inherent elegance in what is useless.

Before beginning to decorate a house it is necessary to make a
prolonged and careful study of its plan and elevations, both as
a whole and in detail. The component parts of an undecorated
room are its floor, ceiling, wall-spaces and openings. The open-
ings consist of the doors, windows and fireplace ; and of these,
as has already been pointed out, the fireplace is the most im-
portant in the general scheme of decoration.

No room can be satisfactory unless its openings are properly
placed and proportioned, and the decorator's task is much easier
if he has also been the architect of the house he is employed to
decorate ; but as this seldom happens his ingenuity is frequently
taxed to produce a good design upon the background of a faulty
and illogical structure. Much may be done to overcome this
difficulty by making slight changes in the proportions of the

24 The Decoration of Houses

openings; and the skilful decorator, before applying his scheme
of decoration, will do all that he can to correct the fundamental
lines of the room. But the result is seldom so successful as if
he had built the room, and those who employ different people to
build and decorate their houses should at least try to select an
architect and a decorator trained in the same school of composi-
tion, so that they may come to some understanding with regard
to the general harmony of their work.

In deciding upon a scheme of decoration, it is necessary to keep
in mind the relation of furniture to ornament, and of the room
as a whole to other rooms in the house. As in a small house
a very large room dwarfs all the others, so a room decorated
in a very rich manner will make the simplicity of those about
it look mean. Every house should be decorated according to a
carefully graduated scale of ornamentation culminating in the
most important room of the house ; but this plan must be carried
out with such due sense of the relation of the rooms to each
other that there shall be no violent break in the continuity of
treatment. If a white-and-gold drawing-room opens on a hall
with a Brussels carpet and papered walls, the drawing-room will
look too fine and the hall mean.

In the furnishing of each room the same rule should be as
carefully observed. The simplest and most cheaply furnished
room (provided the furniture be good of its kind, and the walls and
carpet unobjectionable in color) will be more pleasing to the fasti-
dious eye than one in which gilded consoles and cabinets of buhl
stand side by side with cheap machine-made furniture, and deli-
cate old marquetry tables are covered with trashy china ornaments.

It is, of course, not always possible to refurnish a room when
it is redecorated. Many people must content themselves with



Rooms in General 25

using their old furniture, no matter how ugly and ill-assorted it
may be; and it is the decorator's business to see that his back-
ground helps the furniture to look its best. It is a mistake to
think that because the furniture of a room is inappropriate or ugly
a good background will bring out these defects. It will, on the
contrary, be a relief to the eye to escape from the bad lines of the
furniture to the good lines of the walls ; and should the oppor-
tunity to purchase new furniture ever come, there will be a
suitable background ready to show it to the best advantage.

Most rooms contain a mixture of good, bad, and indifferent fur-
niture. It is best to adapt the decorative treatment to the best
pieces and to discard those which are in bad taste, replacing
them, if necessary, by willow chairs and stained deal tables until it
is possible to buy something better. When the room is to be
refurnished as well as redecorated the client often makes his pur-
chases without regard to the decoration. Besides being an injus-
tice to the decorator, inasmuch as it makes it impossible for him
to harmonize his decoration with the furniture, this generally pro-
duces a result unsatisfactory to the owner of the house. Neither
decoration nor furniture, however good of its kind, can look its
best unless each is chosen with reference to the other. It is there-
fore necessary that the decorator, before planning his treatment of
a room, should be told what it is to contain. If a gilt set is put in
a room the walls of which are treated in low relief and painted
white, the high lights of the gilding will destroy the delicate values
of the mouldings, and the walls, at a little distance, will look like
flat expanses of whitewashed plaster.

When a room is to be furnished and decorated at the smallest
possible cost, it must be remembered that the comfort of its occu-
pants depends more on the nature of the furniture than of the

2.6 The Decoration of Houses

wall-decorations or carpet. In a living-room of this kind it is best
to tint the walls and put a cheerful drugget on the floor, keeping
as much money as possible for the purchase of comfortable chairs
and sofas and substantial tables. If little can be spent in buying
furniture, willow arm-chairs 1 with denim cushions and solid
tables with stained legs and covers of denim or corduroy will be
more satisfactory than the "parlor suit" turned out in thousands
by the manufacturer of cheap furniture, or the pseudo-Georgian
or pseudo-Empire of the dealer in "high-grade goods." Plain
bookcases may be made of deal, painted or stained ; and a room
treated in this way, with a uniform color on the wall, and plenty
of lamps and books, is sure to be comfortable and can never
be vulgar.

It is to be regretted that, in this country and in England, it
should be almost impossible to buy plain but well-designed and
substantial furniture. Nothing can exceed the ugliness of the
current designs : the bedsteads with towering head-boards fretted
by the versatile jig-saw; the "bedroom suits" of "mahoganized"
cherry, bird's-eye maple, or some other crude-colored wood ; the
tables with meaninglessly turned legs; the "Empire" chairs and
consoles stuck over with ornaments of cast bronze washed in
liquid gilding; and, worst of all, the supposed "Colonial" fur-
niture, that unworthy travesty of a plain and dignified style. All
this showy stuff has been produced in answer to the increasing
demand for cheap "effects" in place of unobtrusive merit in
material and design ; but now that an appreciation of better things
in architecture is becoming more general, it is to be hoped that
the "artistic" furniture disfiguring so many of our shop-windows
will no longer find a market.

3-Not rattan, as the models are too bad.

Rooms in General 27

There is no lack of models for manufacturers to copy, if their
customers will but demand what is good. France and England,
in the eighteenth century, excelled in the making of plain, inex-
pensive furniture of walnut, mahogany, or painted beechwood
(see Plates VII-X). Simple in shape and substantial in construc-
tion, this kind of furniture was never tricked out with moulded
bronzes and machine-made carving, or covered with liquid gild-
ing, but depended for its effect upon the solid qualities of good
material, good design and good workmanship. The eighteenth-
century cabinet-maker did not attempt cheap copies of costly
furniture; the common sense of his patrons would have resented
such a perversion of taste. Were the modern public as fastidious,
it would soon be easy to buy good furniture for a moderate price ;
but until people recognize the essential vulgarity of the pinchbeck
article flooding our shops and overflowing upon our sidewalks,
manufacturers will continue to offer such wares in preference to
better but less showy designs.

The worst defects of the furniture now made in America
are due to an Athenian thirst for novelty, not always regulated
by an Athenian sense of fitness. No sooner is it known that
beautiful furniture was made in the time of Marie-Antoinette
than an epidemic of supposed "Marie-Antoinette" rooms breaks
out over the whole country. Neither purchaser nor manufacturer
has stopped to inquire wherein the essentials of the style consist.
They know that the rooms of the period were usually painted in
light colors, and that the furniture (in palaces) was often gilt and
covered with brocade; and it is taken for granted that plenty of
white paint, a pale wall-paper with bow-knots, and fragile
chairs dipped in liquid gilding and covered with a flowered silk-
and-cotton material, must inevitably produce a " Marie-An-

28 The Decoration of Houses

toinette" room. According to the creed of the modern manu-
facturer, you have only to combine certain "goods" to obtain
a certain style.

This quest of artistic novelties would be encouraging were it
based on the desire for something better, rather than for something
merely different. The tendency to dash from one style to an-
other, without stopping to analyze the intrinsic qualities of any,
has defeated the efforts of those who have tried to teach the true
principles of furniture-designing by a return .to the best models.
If people will buy the stuff now offered them as Empire, Sheraton
or Louis XVI, the manufacturer is not to blame for making it.
It is not the maker but the purchaser who sets the standard; and
there will never be any general supply of better furniture until
people take time to study the subject, and find out wherein lies
the radical unfitness of what now contents them.

Until this golden age arrives the householder who cannot afford
to buy old pieces, or to have old models copied by a skilled
cabinet-maker, had better restrict himself to the plainest of fur-
niture, relying for the embellishment of his room upon good
bookbindings and one or two old porcelain vases for his lamps.

Concerning the difficult question of color, it is safe to say that
the fewer the colors used in a room, the more pleasing and restful
the result will be. A multiplicity of colors produces the same
effect as a number of voices talking at the same time. The voices
may not be discordant, but continuous chatter is fatiguing in the
long run. Each room should speak with but one voice : it should
contain one color, which at once and unmistakably asserts its
predominance, in obedience to the rule that where there is a
division of parts one part shall visibly prevail over all the others.

To attain this result, it is best to use the same color and, if






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Rooms in General 29

possible, the same material, for curtains and chair-coverings. This
produces an impression of unity and gives an air of spaciousness
to the room. When the walls are simply panelled in oak or wal-
nut, or are painted in some neutral tones, such as gray and white,
the carpet may contrast in color with the curtains and chair-cov-
erings. For instance, in an oak-panelled room crimson curtains
and chair-coverings may be used with a dull green carpet, or with
one of dark blue patterned in subdued tints; or the color-scheme
may be reversed, and green hangings and chair-coverings com-
bined with a plain crimson carpet.

Where the walls are covered with tapestry, or hung with a large
number of pictures, or, in short, are so treated that they present
a variety of colors, it is best that curtains, chair-coverings and
carpet should all be of one color and without pattern. Gradu-
ated shades Oi the same color should almost always be avoided ;
theoretically they seem harmonious, but in reality the light shades
look faded in proximity with the darker ones. Though it is well,
as a rule, that carpet and hangings should match, exception must
always be made in favor of a really fine old Eastern rug. The
tints of such rugs are too subdued, too subtly harmonized by time,
to clash with any colors the room may contain; but those who
cannot cover their floors in this way will do well to use carpets
of uniform tint, rather than the gaudy rugs now made in the East.
The modern red and green Smyrna or Turkey carpet is an excep-
tion. Where the furniture is dark and substantial, and the pre-
dominating color is a strong green or crimson, such a carpet is
always suitable. These Smyrna carpets are usually well designed ;
and if their colors be restricted to red and green, with small ad-
mixture of dark blue, they harmonize with almost any style of
decoration. It is well, as a rule, to shun the decorative schemes

30 The Decoration of Houses

concocted by the writers who supply our newspapers with hints
for "artistic interiors." The use of such poetic adjectives as jon-
quil-yellow, willow-green, shell-pink, or ashes-of-roses, gives to
these descriptions of the "unique boudoir" or "ideal summer
room " a charm which the reality would probably not possess.
The arrangements suggested are usually cheap devices based
upon the mistaken idea that defects in structure or design may be
remedied by an overlaying of color or ornament. This theory
often leads to the spending of much more money than would
have been required to make one or two changes in the plan of
the room, and the result is never satisfactory to the fastidious.

There are but two ways of dealing with a room which is fun-
damentally ugly: one is to accept it, and the other is coura-
geously to correct its ugliness. Half-way remedies are a waste
of money and serve rather to call attention to the defects of the
room than to conceal them.















PROPORTION is the good breeding of architecture. It is
that something, indefinable to the unprofessional eye, which
gives repose and distinction to a room : in its origin a matter of
nice mathematical calculation, of scientific adjustment of voids
and masses, but in its effects as intangible as that all-pervading
essence which the ancients called the soul.

It is not proposed to enter here into a technical discussion of
the delicate problem of proportion. The decorator, with whom
this book is chiefly concerned, is generally not consulted until
the house that he is to decorate has been built and built, in all
probability, quite without reference to the interior treatment it is
destined to receive. All he can hope to do is, by slight modifica-
tions here and there in the dimensions or position of the open-
ings, to re-establish that harmony of parts so frequently disre-
garded in modern house-planning. It often happens, however,
that the decorator's desire to make these slight changes, upon
which the success of his whole scheme depends, is a source
of perplexity and distress to his bewildered client, who sees in it
merely the inclination to find fault with another's work. Nothing
can be more natural than this attitude on the part of the client.
How is he to decide between the architect, who has possibly dis-


32 The Decoration of Houses

regarded in some measure the claims of symmetry and proportion
in planning the interior of the house, and the decorator who in-
sists upon those claims without being able to justify his demands
by any explanation comprehensible to the unprofessional? It 'is
inevitable that the decorator, who comes last, should fare worse,
especially as he makes his appearance at a time when contractors'
bills are pouring in, and the proposition to move a mantelpiece
or change the dimensions of a door opens fresh vistas of expense
to the client's terrified imagination.

Undoubtedly these difficulties have diminished in the last few
years. Architects are turning anew to the lost tradition of sym-
metry and to a scientific study of the relation between voids and
masses, and the decorator's task has become correspondingly
easier. Still, there are many cases where his work is complicated
by some trifling obstacle, the removal of which the client opposes
only because he cannot in imagination foresee the improvement
which would follow. If the client permits the change to be made,
he has no difficulty in appreciating the result: he cannot see it in

A few words from Isaac Ware's admirable chapter on "The
Origin of Proportions in the Orders " l may serve to show the im-
portance of proportion in all schemes of decoration, and the neces-
sity of conforming to certain rules that may at first appear both
arbitrary and incomprehensible.

"An architect of genius," Ware writes (alluding to the latitude
which the ancients allowed themselves in using the orders), "will
think himself happy, in designing a building that is to be enriched

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Online LibraryEdith WhartonThe decoration of houses → online text (page 3 of 16)